China has traditionally rejected US-style interventionism, but its deepening economic involvement in volatile countries like Myanmar and Zimbabwe is thrusting Beijing towards a more assertive global role, analysts say.
China’s foreign policy has been guided by its principle of “non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs”, which emerged in 1954 when it was a much weaker nation.
While Beijing remains rhetorically committed to the stance, it is now a very different power, boasting the world’s largest standing army and the second biggest economy.
This change has coincided with a shift in diplomatic engagement that most recently saw Beijing take the unusual step of proposing a strategy to resolve the crisis over Muslim refugees flooding over the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
It has also stepped up its role in the Middle East — on which it depends for oil — after having long taken a backseat in the powder-keg region, offering to host talks on the Syrian and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
China is now expected to take greater responsibility in world affairs as “it’s no longer the little underdog,” said Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.
“You can’t have an elephant pretending it’s a mouse.”
China’s footprint abroad is growing with its One Belt, One Road infrastructure project, with $1 trillion in investments across Asia and Europe to revive ancient trade routes through a massive rail and maritime network.
As the scope of Beijing’s foreign interests extend, “naturally the question of how to safeguard those interests also comes up,” said Chinese political commentator Chen Daoyin.
President Xi Jinping presented an ambitious goal of turning China into a global superpower with a first-rate army during a Communist Party congress last month that further consolidated his power.
Chen noted that Xi vowed to “uphold the international order”, implying a much more active role increasingly similar to that of the US, which China has decried as overly meddlesome.
Though China would not publicly disavow its non-interventionist approach, it would likely “gradually dilute it, so that it evolves from non-interference to neutrality to interference,” Chen said.
“When China’s national interests are harmed abroad, it’s entirely possible that it could use the need to protect its investments and diaspora citizens as an excuse to deploy troops.”
Beijing has been flexing its military muscle, opening its first overseas military base in Djibouti in August and building militarised islands in the disputed South China Sea.
Yet even without direct military intervention, China has found itself embroiled in politics abroad despite its wish to remain an amoral political force.
Zimbabwe’s army chief, General Constantine Chiwenga, happened to be on an official visit to Beijing days before his forces took over the country, sparking speculation that Beijing had some role in the decision.
China had a long-running relationship with Robert Mugabe and has significant investments to protect in the country.
Brown said he was “sceptical” of such rumours but they demonstrate the impossibility of not taking sides as a superpower.
“If people attribute power to you, you have it, you have influence,” he said. “The comfortable fence-sitting is then not very sustainable.”
In Cambodia, China is the largest source of foreign direct investment, having pumped in a total of $11.2 billion by the end of 2016.
The poverty-striken country’s dependence on Chinese money emboldened its Prime Minister Hun Sen to “make political moves that erode democracy and democratic processes,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia programme at the Stimson Center, a US-based think tank.
“As long as China continues to hold economic sway over Cambodia, Cambodia will remain authoritarian without an opposition party.”
Myanmar has faced global outrage over a military crackdown on minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state that the UN has called “ethnic cleansing”.
But its government has seen unflinching support from China, which has invested billions on ports, gas and oil in Rakhine — including a $2.45 billion pipeline that opened in April.
Earlier this month, strong Chinese opposition forced the UN Security Council to drop plans to adopt a resolution demanding an end to the violence.
Instead, Beijing has presented its own proposal to resolve the crisis with a ceasefire, refugee repatriation and poverty alleviation.
“Everything seems to have a link with China now, whether it’s Zimbabwe or Burma or Sri Lanka or political issues in New Zealand — it’s an extraordinary change,” Brown said, using another name for Myanmar.
“The idea of non-intervention has sort of become impossible. Even if China just wants to sit in glorious isolation, problems will now come and find it.”